9 Investigative Journalists You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Editor's Note: Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is the editor of the just-published book Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the WorldHere, Anya joins Signature to highlight just a handful of the pioneering journalists from around the world who risked their lives and their reputations to uncover injustices. 

Before I began the research for my new book Global Muckraking: 100 Years of  Investigative Journalism from Around the World, I had not known about the history of the brave journalists who reported from places like Azerbaijan, Mozambique, Chile, South Africa and rural India. Even under the most difficult conditions, they exposed corruption, military atrocities, famines, harsh labor practices and police brutality. Often these reporters were punished or killed for speaking out against wrongdoing. Today some are well known. Others are remembered only in the countries where they lived. But all of them serve as an inspiring reminder of the power of the press. There are 47 pieces of journalism in my book, each introduced by an historian or journalist or activist who explains why the reporting mattered. Below are a few highlights.

1. E.D. Morel: The story of E.D. Morel was made famous by Adam Hochschild’s best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost. Hochschild explains that Morel was originally hired by British shipping firm, Elder Dempster and part of his job involved tracking the overseas cargo coming in from the Congo Free State, King Leopold II of Belgium’s privately-owned colony, to the docks in Antwerp. Morel soon saw that while vast amounts of ivory and rubber were coming in, mainly soldiers, weapons and ammunition were going out. From this he realized that the colony’s economy was based on forced labor, which was producing an enormous profit for King Leopold.  Outraged, Morel quit his job and became the foremost British investigative journalist of his time, orchestrating, for the next decade, an international campaign against forced labor in the Congo.

2. Dwarkanath Ganguli: A schoolteacher in British-ruled Bengal in the later-nineteenth century, Ganguli was a well-known campaigner for Hindu women’s emancipation who also adopted the cause of the "coolie" or indentured plantation worker. At great personal risk, he travelled to the remote tea plantations of Assam to report on the terrible labour conditions which the British colonial state and the white planter-dominated tea industry kept hidden. In 1886, Ganguli published his expose of the near-slave like conditions of  "coolie" labourers in Indian-nationalist owned Calcutta newspapers. While the influential planter lobby in Britain prevented Ganguli’s reports from having much impact on British public opinion, they could not prevent their circulation among the Indian newspaper reading public. By the early twentieth century, Ganguli’s reports on Assam "coolies" and subsequent reports by C.F. Andrews on Fiji "coolies" were the catalyst for a successful nationalist campaign to end the “coolie” system in the British Empire, many decades after the abolition of the slave trade that it had succeeded.

Horror of the Ukraine

3. Gareth JonesOn a visit to the USSR during the early years of Stalin, Jones saw the signs of the huge Ukraine famine that was to claim an estimated 15-20 million lives. Undaunted by criticism from many on the left who wouldn't believe it was true,  in 1933 Jones published more than twenty more articles in a three week period about what he had seen, with pieces appearing in the Daily Express, Western Mail and  the Financial News (London). His life has been described in an analysis of his work written by Dr. Ray Gamache, Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor. Despite Jones’s efforts, the journalism didn't make a difference. The United States and Britain did not send food aid, neither government willing to challenge the Soviets at a time when the National Socialist Party under Adolph Hitler had only recently come to power in Germany and Japanese militarism posed a challenge in the Far East. But the eyewitness accounts provided by Jones set the historical record straight for generations to come.

4. Henry Nxumalo was the leading investigative reporter at Drum, a lively magazine published in South Africa during the apartheid regime. Founded in 1951, Drum combined serious journalism with wacky photos and coverage of culture and music. Nxumalo (also known as Mr. Drum) was the magazine’s most famous reporter and renowned for going undercover in order to write exposes. He got himself arrested so he could write a first-hand account of prison conditions in a Johannesburg prison and his expose of labor conditions on the potato farm of Bethal led to a consumer boycott. While working on a story, Nxumalo was stabbed under mysterious circumstances and died in 1957. More information about Nxumalo and Drum can be found in the memoir written by Anthony Sampson, one of Drum’s former editors, and the play Who Killed Mr.Drum?

5. Liu BinyanAlmost totally forgotten in China today, Liu Binyan was -- in the 1950s and again in the 1980s -- one of the most famous journalists in the country and eventually known as "China’s Conscience." Writing in a style of fact-based reportage, Liu Binyan described the wrongdoing he saw flourishing in authoritarian China. He took on the corrupt workings of the state and the power-hungry and acquisitive local bureaucrats. The government came down hard. Liu was expelled from the Communist Party in 1957, sent to labor in the countryside for twenty years, re-admitted to the Party in 1978 and expelled again in 1987. He died in exile in 2005. A number of his works have been translated into English including Two Kinds of Truth: Stories and Reportage from China, edited by Perry Link.

6. Carlos CardosoOriginally from Mozambique but exiled to South Africa where he wrote about the apartheid regime, Carlos Cardoso returned home to work for the triumphant Marxist-Leninist government that took office in 1975 after Mozambique’s independence from Portugal. Cardoso then worked for state-run media but became increasingly disillusioned with the greed and corruption of government officials after the country transitioned to democracy in 1994. He left his official job to join a local cooperative of investigative journalists and launched two faxed newsletters Metical and Mediafax, writing fiercely against the "gangsterization of the Mozambican economy" by business and political élites. In 2000, Cardoso, forty-nine, was murdered after uncovering a bank fraud involving prominent Mozambican businessmen protected by the police and the judiciary system. Today, he is still remembered as a hero and an inspiration for a new crop of young reporters and activists who try to keep the government accountable as it earns revenues from the coal and natural gas boom in Mozambique.

Junta session one week after the 1973 coup

7. Patricia VerdugoWriting during the waning years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Verdugo electrified the country with her painstaking reconstruction of the cold-blooded executions that took place in October 1973 right after Pinochet seized power. A military commission flew around Chile in a Puma helicopter and, over the course of three weeks, summarily executed 75 people without trial. Most were supporters of the Salvador Allende government who had peacefully turned themselves in after the September 11 coup and were awaiting a proper trial. Verdugo’s expose of this shocking breach of justice was so thorough that it was used later as evidence when the killers were finally prosecuted. An award-winning journalist, Verdugo died in 2008.

8. Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan, Ismayilova has dedicated herself to exposing the corruption wrought by the oil riches flowing into the country and has repeatedly found that they are being made use of by President Aliev and his family. A talk show host for Radio Free Europe and member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, she has reported on the family’s involvement in shady offshore companies, dubious licensing deals and corrupt privatizations. Ismayilova has been smeared publicly, with details of her personal life posted online. She continues to do investigative reporting and has been recognized internationally and given a number of prestigious journalism awards.

9. P. Sainath: Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, Indian journalist Sainath is known for his passionate defense of the rural poor. Sainath writes about poverty, farmer suicides, labor conditions and the failure of development schemes to help the poor. He also blasts the urban elites and complacent media that ignores the crisis of the Indian countryside. His most recent project is the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI, live online from August 15, 2014). Sainath’s most recent writing can be found on his website.